Monday 9 January 2017

His Girl Friday

The other evening I watched the classic 'screwball' comedy His Girl Friday again. I've seen this adaptation of Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page (with that one inspired change - a female Hildy) maybe half a dozen times over the years, and it still comes up fresh and funny with every viewing. The dialogue in particular is so rich, dense and phenomenally fast-moving that it just goes on giving - there's always going to be some little gem you missed the last time.
 Whenever Cary Grant (playing editor Walter Burns) and Rosalind Russell (playing Hildy Johnson, ace reporter and Walter's ex-wife) are together, the dialogue fizzes and crackles, careering along at breakneck speed, lines constantly overlapping or being left unfinished. Grant was often ad-libbing, while Russell would throw in lines she'd had written for her to liven things up, so both actors were on their toes throughout, and the exhilaration of working like this (encouraged by Hawks) brought out the best in them.
 It was in The Front Page that the comic persona Grant developed in The Awful Truth achieved perfection - and he had the perfect on-screen partner in Rosalind Russell. She, however, was far from first choice for the part (more like sixth or seventh), and director Howard Hawks initially seemed none too keen to have her. It surely can't have taken him long to realise that he had struck gold - Grant and Russell were a partnership made in movie heaven, and she was a revelation. Not only did the two of them give all-time great performances, they did it with effortless aplomb and masses of style, the latter enhanced by their quite fabulous costumes - Hildy's raffish hat, Walter's impeccable suits (Grant is one of those rare men who can wear a double-breasted suit with absolute conviction).
 In one of its most spectacular displays of obtuseness, the Academy entirely ignored His Girl Friday when Oscars time came round - not so much as a nomination, for Grant, for Russell, for Hawks, for anyone. Indeed Cary Grant, the finest comic actor of his generation, had only two Oscar nods in his entire career - neither of them for a comic role - and had to wait until 1970 for a belated honorary award, his only Oscar. He accepted it, of course, with good grace.

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